I recently participated in a lively discussion on Facebook in one of the professional editor groups I belong to. A colleague was trying to sort a reference list in a document and was having some trouble. After quite a bit of troubleshooting (and other colleagues chiming in to provide helpful tips), she was able to successfully sort the list. Others may encounter this as well, so I wanted to share my thoughts about this topic!

How do I sort text in Word?

Sorting text in Word is relatively easy. First, select the text that you want to sort. On the Home tab, click on the Sort icon (see below).

Sort icon in Microsoft Word

In the dialog box that pops up, select “Paragraphs” under “Sort by.” Make sure that “Text” is selected for “Type” and that “Ascending” is selected to sort from A to Z. Click OK to sort the text.

Sort Text dialog box in Microsoft Word

Do I need to use a table?

No, you do not need to use a table or any other program (such as Excel) to sort text. You can sort directly in Word as long as the text is formatted correctly.

How do I make sure the text is ready to sort?

Before sorting, you should review the text to make sure that the paragraphs are formatted correctly. It is common for authors to use tabs or manual line breaks instead of paragraph marks if they are not familiar with how to create a hanging indent for reference entries. You should also make sure that there are no extra spaces at the beginning of lines.

You can check the hidden formatting symbols in Word by clicking on the Show/Hide icon on the Home tab (see below) and then reviewing the text.

Show/Hide icon in Microsoft Word

Why am I having problems?

If you’re struggling to sort your text properly, there could be a few things going on.

If the paragraphs are not formatted correctly (see the previous section), Word won’t be able to sort the text. Be sure that all of the paragraph marks separating each list item are formatted correctly.

If the author has used another software program such as EndNote to format citations and references, there may be fields present in the document. To edit the text, you will need to strip out the fields and convert the text to plain text.

To remove fields, select all the text in the document and then press ctrl + shift + F9 (Windows) or cmd + shift + fn + F9 (Mac).

Is there an easier way to do this?

Checking alphabetical order

Sorting text in Word is pretty straightforward, but you may want to automate the process of checking the alphabetical order of a list.

Fellow editorial pro Paul Beverley has written several macros that can automate this process, including AlphabeticOrderChecker, which I use frequently. Be sure to follow Paul’s instructions before installing and running any of these macros. You can also view a demonstration of some of these sorting macros here.

To run AlphabeticOrderChecker, place your cursor at the beginning of the first paragraph in the list and run the macro. The macro will flag any instances that are not in alphabetical order.

Removing fields

The UnlinkCitationsAndRefs macro will turn any linked text (citations and references) into editable plain text.

What should I still check?

It’s always a good idea to do a final review of your list—computers don’t catch everything 100% of the time! Keep an eye out for any prefixes in author surnames, special characters (accents, umlauts, and so on), or capitalization issues. If you’re working with a reference list, be sure that you’re following the style guide for the particular project you are working on. Depending on the style you need to follow, checking the alphabetical order of the list could get complicated if there are multiple entries with the same surname listed first.

I really enjoyed participating in this discussion on Facebook, so I hope this post is helpful. Did I miss anything? Are there other issues you have encountered while sorting text in Word?

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